At the time, I was just getting into sports writing and interning for a now-defunct Detroit sports website while finishing up my degree at the University of Central Florida. If you’re not brushed up on your Florida geography, it might help to know that Hagerty lies just four minutes north of UCF across the Seminole County border.
Putting two and two together, I decided to reach out and try and see if I could get ahold of anyone close to the Greenes. While I was unable to reach Riley at the time, I did get his travel coach and father, Alan, on the phone. After a few hours of discussing the Tigers’ latest draft selection with the people close to him, one thing stood out above the rest: Riley’s work ethic.
As a novice, most of my questions were softballs that gave a dad and coach the chance to gush about a kid who had obviously done all the right things so far. But, there was one lingering question about Greene’s future that had to be addressed. Could he actually play center field at the major league level?
“Just watch,” Alan Greene said almost four years ago. “Everyone thinks he’s going to end up in left, but he wants to play center and he’s going to work for it.”
Fast forward to 2023 and Greene is coming off a season where he spent 93 games at center field for the Tigers. He’s likely to see the bulk of his starts there again in 2023, but the Tigers will also experiment with him at a corner outfield spot with Matt Vierling also set to make the opening-day roster.
Greene spent the first half of last season returning from a broken foot suffered at the very end of what have been a very promising spring camp, but he’ll enter 2023 completely healthy and coming off a good spring. This could be the year that he takes the step into the national spotlight as one of Detroit’s best, but it will take some significant improvements from his rookie season to reach those heights.
Riley Greene 2021-22
Greene came into the league as one of the best pure hitters in his class. However, the numbers weren’t anywhere near elite in 2022. Greene was average at the plate with a .253 batting average and a 99 OPS+. The power he flashed in the minors rarely showed up at the major-league level, and he struck out (120) almost four times as much as he walked (36).
Fixing things might not be too complicated, though. Greene told The Athletic that he spent the offseason working on minor adjustments to his approach at the plate with the goal of hitting more line drives in 2023. More than half of the balls Greene put into play last season were on the ground while only 20.1 percent were considered line drives.
Pitch selection will also be a bigger point of focus this season. Greene hit most of his ground balls on pitches outside of the zone, particularly struggling with the high and outside stuff, as well as balls that came low and inside. It’s worth noting that Greene posted a better than average swinging strike rate and yet still struck out 28.7 percent of the time. He took more called strikes than average, and that may reflect both rookie status and not getting the calls, but also the approach of a hitter who isn’t used to pitchers challenging him in the zone when deep in counts. A little more maturity and comfort as a major leaguer should help him in that regard.
Just a modest improvement in approach should not only lead to more line drives for Greene, but a higher on-base percentage as well. Greene hit first for Detroit in 76 games last season, and lead-off guys are supposed to be on-base machines. He’s supposed to develop into a middle of the order hitter, but better pitch selection will get him closer to where he needs to be, no matter where he’s hitting in the lineup.
It’s worth noting that when Riley did drive the ball in the air, he showed off that easy plus power. Pick a few more good pitches to drive in the air, catch a few more balls out front, and the power should show up a lot more prominently. He hit the ball hard a lot, but it’s that 2022 average launch angle of just 2.8 degrees that sapped his power.
In the field, Greene showed plenty of promise as a center fielder. He’s somehow faster than he was as a prep prospect, and speed isn’t usually something that comes with age and muscle. His instincts have always been there, made evident by the countless diving plays he made a year ago. With the Comerica Park closing in the walls and bringing them to a uniform seven feet all the way around, Greene should be able to rob a few in 2023.
In a year where Detroit is set to lose Miguel Cabrera, it seems only fitting that the next great Tiger emerges.
Riley Greene can be the face of this franchise if everything goes right for him, and there’s little doubt that he’s going to put in the work necessary to make it happen. Barring injury, Greene seems poised to take a step forward and avoid a sophomore slump.
If he hangs on to the leadoff spot, Riley could lead the team in at-bats, and hopefully a ton of other offensive categories. Hitting for major power isn’t something he needs to figure out right away, but getting on base and jumpstarting Detroit’s offense is crucial, whether he’s hitting at the top or in the heart of the order.
The big question is whether he’ll stay in center field or not, but my answer is going to be the same as his dad’s four years ago when this whole thing began.